How to Be a Better Editor
1. Find a quiet space to do your editing.
Don’t try to get your editing done in a meeting, or when you’re around chatty coworkers. Multitasking like that can make us far less effective at our work and increase mistakes and stress. And when you’re editing, you’re trying to catch those mistakes — so you want to be extra diligent.
Instead, find a place where you can plug in and concentrate fully on the piece in front of you. When you get there, turn off those pesky email and social media notifications, and put your phone on airplane mode (or, better yet, leave it in your bag).
If you’re working through a piece of writing that’ll require more than a few hours of careful editing, consider blocking out chunks of concentrated time separated by breaks. Otherwise, you may lose focus and begin missing things.
In fact, a study by the Draugiem Group found that the employees with the highest productivity spent 52 minutes working, followed by 17 minutes of rest. Taking breaks is key to ensuring you’re always at your best when editing someone else’s work.
2. Be sure the topic aligns with your content strategy.
You might be tempted to dig into the meat of the piece and begin meticulously editing it straight away. But, as an editor, it’s important that you put the content into context before you dive into the details.
First, take a quick skim of the working title, the layout, and the main ideas covered in the piece. Think to yourself: Does this topic align with our content strategy? Will our readers and buyer personas care about it?
If you’re concerned the piece isn’t about a topic your readers will be interested in, think about how to tweak the angle. You might need to collaborate with the author and send it back, asking for a major restructuring before you spend time editing it to ensure it resonates with your readers.
You’ll also want to reflect on how the piece fits in with what you’ve written in the past — especially if the piece is a blog post. Search engines like Google might see the second post as duplicate content and penalize you in search.
Even if Google doesn’t consider it duplicate content, competing for keyword ranking against another post from your own blog will hurt your SEO strategy. The questions to ask yourself here are: Have we covered this topic comprehensively in the past? Will it add anything new and interesting?
If both answers are yes, you might consider updating and republishing the original draft. We do that a lot here at HubSpot — for instance, if a reader pitches a full draft on “Instagram Hashtags” but I know we have plenty on Instagram Marketing already, I’ll take a look at older Instagram pieces and consider whether they deserve a complete rewrite, or whether I can add some of the author’s sections to the end of a piece and link back to the author’s website.
3. Read for content and ideas first, grammar second.
Never start diving into detailed edits before you read the whole piece through. It’s important to reflect on it holistically so you can pinpoint places where the content and ideas can be made stronger. This may seem like we’re adding time here, but trust me, this’ll save you a lot of time and pain in the long run.
If you’ve ever started editing a piece line-by-line only to realize it needs to be completely restructured, you know what I mean.
The key takeaway here is to recognize when the piece needs more work from the author.
“Sometimes, an author sends a piece in before it’s ready to be edited,” says Corey Wainwright, HubSpot’s Director of Content. “Learning to recognize those instances can save you a ton of time, because otherwise you start just rewriting the piece, which isn’t helpful to either of you.”
If you notice the piece doesn’t flow well, or the introduction needs to be tightened up, or there aren’t enough points in the article for it to meet your standards for quality, then it’s better to send that feedback to the author via email than to try and fix it yourself.
If the piece needs an overwhelming amount of editing help, then the author’s writing may not be a fit for your publication — and you’ll save a lot of time by telling the contributor outright.
Additionally, Carly Stec, who was previously Editor of HubSpot’s Marketing Blog, told me, “Develop multiple editing phases. Rather than trying to solve everything at once when you’re editing, look for something specific each time you read through it. For example, you might read through it once looking for spelling errors and then read through it again to catch any brand style guide violations.”
4. Check for places where the author can fill in the blanks.
Aside from providing larger, more broad feedback, you should also read through the piece to identify smaller improvements that you might want (or need) the author’s help on. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are there any structural inconsistencies in the piece? For example, if they included an image in every section of the piece except for one or two, you might ask them to find an image for those sections for consistency.
- Are there any points that need more, better, or any evidence? Statistics and data can elevate the quality of your content and make it more interesting for readers.
- Are any sources missing citations? (This is a big one.)
As you read, take notes on these points in an email draft to the author. Once you’re done, make sure you clean up the notes so they’re comprehensible, and send them along before you edit any further.
5. Include positive feedback in your edits, as well.
Aja Frost, former editor of HubSpot’s Sales Blog, urges editors to remember the importance of positive feedback, as well.
She says, “Try to call out the strong aspects of the post — not just what needs to improve. Comments like ‘This is great,’ ‘Love how you explained this,’ ‘Excellent transition,’ etc. take just a second to write, but have a big impact.”
“Positive feedback balances out your constructive comments, makes the writer feel excited about starting their second draft, and ensures they’ll keep doing the things you appreciated.”
Positive feedback can ensure your writers don’t feel burnt out by all the constructive feedback they receive, particularly in the beginning of their writing career. Additionally, it helps you point out what you like about their writing and what you hope to see more of in the future.
Ultimately, positive feedback can be just as helpful as constructive to ensure you eventually progress your writers to “zero edits”, which means they don’t require an editor to check their work before publishing on your site.
6. Bookmark helpful websites for quick referencing.
If the content, ideas, and structure of the piece are all ready to go, you can get down to the nitty-gritty of editing the piece. This is where I like to keep a few websites bookmarked for reference. Here are the ones I prefer.
- Your company’s style guide: For when you want to double-check how something is spelled or referred to.
- Percent change calculator: For checking math.
- Your favorite keyword tools: For identifying top keywords for the content so you can use them in the title, headers, and relevant anchor text.
- Embed code generator: For creating embed codes for any original graphics or infographics. (Learn how to use it here.)
- Click-to-tweet: For adding click-to-tweet links to tweetable quotes in a blog post. (Learn how here.)
For more ideas, read this blog post for the ultimate list of websites every blogger should bookmark.
7. Keep useful code snippets close at hand.
Along with bookmarking helpful websites, it’s also a good idea to have all those useful snippets of HTML or other code that you tend to use easily accessible.
For example, you might notice that we add borders around many of our images on the blog. To add these borders, I need to add a specific snippet of code into the source code of the blog posts I write and edit.
To make this process easy, I created a Google Doc with all relevant code snippets and then bookmarked it. When it comes time to add them to the source code of my blog post, I simply pull up the Doc and plug in the snippets as need.
(Download our free guide to HTML here to learn some simple and useful HTML coding hacks.)
8. Read the piece out loud.
Reading out loud isn’t just good for memory retention — it’s also a great way to find errors in a piece of writing. You’re more likely to find clumsy sentences and other things spell check won’t necessarily catch if you hear those errors out loud.
Best-selling author David Sedaris uses this verbal approach to fine-tune his writing. According to Fast Company, Sedaris tests his works-in-progress by reading it aloud to live audiences because it helps him notice imperfections in the text.
As he reads, he’ll circle everything from confusing or misleading phrasing to closely repeated words or words that sound alike in the same paragraph.
“I used to hate it when a book came out or a story was published and I would be like ‘damn, how did I not catch that?'” Sedaris said. “But you pretty much always catch it when you’re reading out loud.”
Reading out loud will help you catch these errors in the first go-round, which will save you time later.
9. Use “Find and Replace” to quickly fix common errors.
If you’re editing for a new writer, you’ll likely begin to see similar errors arise in all her first drafts. Alternatively, if you’re editing your own work, you probably know the mistakes you’re most likely to make (like mixing up “you’re” and “your”, or writing “Additionally” too often).
Knowing that, you can do a “Find and Replace” before publishing a piece to correct these little slipups. It’s a far quicker way to polish a piece than looking for these instances manually.
To do a “Find and Replace,” hit Control + F on a PC (or Command + F on a Mac), type in your problem word or phrase and click “Find,” and let your browser take you to the word or phrase. Then, look through each instance of that word or phrase and swap it out with the right thing when needed.
If you’re editing for a new writer, make note of consistent mistakes you note in her writing in an overarching Google Doc, so she can refer back to it as she’s writing and learn how to fix those errors for herself.
I used my own “Caroline’s Editing Doc” as a new writer to scan my writing for consistent issues before sending along to my editor, to ensure she wasn’t always editing for the same mistakes.
10. “Find and Replace” HTML snippets to quickly clean up a post’s formatting.
You can use the same principle when you’re cleaning up the formatting of a piece of writing for a blog post or other piece of online content. Skip the time-consuming manual work and find specific pieces of code using “Find and Replace.”
For example, if you’re finding rogue <span> tags or other troublesome code in the source code, you can use “Find and Replace” to replace them with something else or strip them out completely.
Simply hit Control + F on a PC (or Command + F on a Mac), type or paste in the code, and click “Find.” Under “Replace,” either fill in the code you want to replace it with, or leave it blank to strip out the code completely. When you hit “All,” it’ll be gone.
11. Do two rounds of edits, and send a follow-up email with the most important edits.
Lindsay Kolowich, who was previously HubSpot’s Marketing Blog Manager, told me: “Do at least two rounds of edits: one to zoom in and the other to zoom out. If you’re detail-oriented like me, you’ll be tempted to line-edit the piece the second you start reading it.”
She continues, “I’m not telling you not to do that, but I am encouraging you to read the piece again once you’ve gotten this out of your system so you can give the (frankly more important) feedback about higher-level details like overall narrative and structure. If you can resist the urge to line-edit on the first read, even better.”
“Reading through at a high level first before diving into the details can actually save you a lot of time, especially if big chunks of the piece end up needing to be rewritten.”
Additionally, Kolowich says, “Pull out the most important feedback to send in an email. If you use a collaborative text editor like Google Docs to give feedback, then your suggested edits and comments end up crowded on top of each other with no clear distinction between the most and least important feedback.”
She adds, “It can be incredibly helpful for both you and the writer if you pull out the most important feedback (usually on structure, narrative, flow, and/or any major red flags) and send it along in an email once you’re done editing. Yes, it takes extra time, but it helps both you as an editor reflect on the piece as a whole after line-editing it, and it primes the writer for some of the bigger feedback that will likely take longer to address.”
“If you work with the same writers time and time again, these emails serve as a great record of feedback they’ve gotten in the past and can help you identify patterns and specific areas for improvement.”
12. Copy and paste the piece of writing into Microsoft Word to find spelling and grammatical errors.
It doesn’t matter how meticulously you eyeballed a piece of writing: More often than not, you will find additional errors using spell check that you would otherwise miss.
If your writing software has spell check, use it. We also recommend pasting the content into Microsoft Word (length-permitting) for a final check.
Just remember to give the document a few extra seconds to process your piece once you’ve pasted it in there, as Word takes a little longer to “read” your piece and uncover any mistakes. Then, you can go through it and assess any red or green squiggly lines you see.
13. Know when the content is good enough.
I know as well as any other editor that letting go of perfectionism is hard. But it turns out that perfectionism, while helpful in certain contexts, can become a major roadblock for productivity.
There will always be something you can do to improve a piece of writing — and it can drive you crazy if you let it. You might think of “done” as spending every possible minute improving, polishing, and refining a piece until it’s whittled to perfection.
But what are you sacrificing by making more, minor improvements? And are those sacrifices realistic? Are they worth your time? At some point, you need to ask yourself: When is “good enough” good enough?
Of course, knowing what the threshold for “good enough” is easier said than done. Here’s a helpful formula to give you some direction:
- The piece successfully solves the problem, addresses the need, or conveys the message intended.
- It is clearly and distinctly on brand.
- The quality of work is consistent with or above the level of previous work.
- It has been thoroughly yet objectively scrutinized by other qualified individuals.
- The final decision of preference had been left in the hands of the creator.
Make sure that you complete the most important editing and proofreading tasks. Then, once you’ve refined a piece enough to move on … just move on.
13. Read backwards.
Carly Stec suggests reading backwards if you’re feeling uninspired or you’ve noticed you often miss typos when editing: “It’s easy to gloss over errors when the sentence or phrase feels familiar. To avoid this, read the content backwards to put more focus on each word individually. This approach should help you spot typos you may have missed otherwise.”
14. Edit for the way people consume web content.
Karla Cook, who was previously the Editor of HubSpot’s Marketing Blog, urges editors to remember the platform on which you’re publishing when you’re publishing blog posts: namely, web pages.
She says, “Edit for the way people read web content: Web copy is not consumed the same as print copy — as an editor, you should be solving for the visual flow of a piece as much as the copy itself. Are there enough paragraph breaks? Is the structure easy to navigate for the questions a reader might have?”
Additionally, Cook urges, “In a similar vein, you also need to ensure the copy is skim-friendly. If someone was to dive into a random paragraph, could they figure out what was going on based on context?”
“As an editor, you need to clarify areas of potential uncertainty that could arise from jumping into the middle of a piece: e.g., if a paragraph starts with: ‘This is the best thing … ‘ does the reader know what ‘this’ is referring to?”
15. Keep this pre-publish checklist handy.
Before you hit “publish,” it’s time to do a final once-over to make sure you’ve checked all the boxes. While this seems like another extra step, remember that this is an investment of time that’ll save you from having to return to the piece later to make edits and adjustments.
But there are a lot of little things to remember before you publish a piece of writing — which is why my colleague Pam Vaughan created this online editing and proofreading checklist. Use it to ensure all the important boxes are checked before you hit publish so that when a piece of writing is shipped, it’s shipped for good.
Originally published May 19, 2020 7:00:00 PM, updated May 20 2020